Re-Designing Neighbourhood Planning and the Opportunities and Challenges of Civic Technology in Policymaking
From my interest in community engagement and my longstanding work in neighbourhood planning since its inception in 2011, I became interested in how neighbourhood planning was enacted by citizens. As a Digital Civics PhD student in the Centre for Doctoral Training at Open Lab, Newcastle University, I was also naturally interested in the use of technology in social and civic processes. These two interests combined formed my PhD research.
My aim was to explore whether civic technology could support citizens in the process of neighbourhood planning. However, to do that, I also wanted to understand the opportunities and challenges faced by citizens doing neighbourhood plans as a foundation to see if/how technology could fit in with the process. To explore this, I undertook various elements of field work with local neighbourhood planning groups in the North East (see below).
Ultimately, through my thesis I argue that neighbourhood planning as a policy tool is flawed – the light touch process the government originally intended has not become a reality. Instead, a long, complex and burdensome tool exists which takes a huge commitment from citizens. Despite this, aspects of neighbourhood planning seen through my PhD (and other literature) show the positive outcomes – a strong, local plan, an engaged community with increased capacity, and local action taken to improve places. I, therefore, argue that the neighbourhood planning process should be re-designed to make it fit for its intended use, ensuring it is accessible, navigable and appropriate for all.
In addition, I suggest that civic technology could play a role in supporting citizens. The complex tasks required of citizens could be supported through peer-to-peer tools, crowdsourcing, data and analysis tools, engagement tech and much more.
Participatory Media with Bootlegger
I worked with three Neighbourhood Planning groups in the North East of England to explore how we could use participatory video as a way to engage citizens. Using Bootlegger (now Our Story), citizens were encouraged to go out into the places and spaces that are important or relevant to them to capture their experiences. With each group, the method was iterated and updated. Around 400 short video clips were created as part of the work that were intended to support the production of a neighbourhood plan.
To read about this work, see publication list.
Exploring the Reality of Neighbourhood Planning
To further understand the reality of neighbourhood planning for those going through the process on the ground, I ran three interactive workshops with three different groups in the North East. The aim was to map out their individual journey to explore the process, identifying challenges and ways in which technology could support the process.
The results of this work showed the complex nature of the policy tool itself. There were multiple issues experienced by citizens in accessing the opportunity of neighbourhood planning, gathering and understanding evidence, writing policy and much more.
To read more about this work, see publication list.
One of the challenges identified in the workshops above was the issue of engaging other citizens in their community to be involved in neighbourhood planning. There was a reliance on traditional engagement methods that have been used in planning for many years, and which have long been criticised. Citizens felt it was a challenge to engage their community and wanted to explore ways to improve this.
I ran two interactive workshops with neighbourhood planners, local authority planners, third sector organisations, councillors and community leaders to co-design engagement methods. We used the idea of a design challenge where small groups were tasked with designing engagement for an underrepresented group using a range of different methods. To help structure and support the task, I developed a methods card deck.
Citizens in the workshop created seven different engagement designs using a range of technology.
Urban Neighbourhood Planning
Only approximately one third of neighbourhood plans are in urban areas. As part of a government initiative, urban neighbourhoods were encouraged to do a neighbourhood plan with support in place to help educate and train citizens about the process. A neighbourhood in the North East were part of this programme and I took part, supporting the group and observing the process.
A range of challenges surfaced in enacting a neighbourhood plan in an urban area, in addition to issues from the local authority who were not supportive and the idea this community were labelled as ‘deprived’ in statistics.